Alice Freeman Palmer bigraphy, stories - educator

Alice Freeman Palmer : biography

21 February 1855 - 6 December 1902

Alice Freeman Palmer (February 21, 1855 – December 6, 1902) was an American educator.

She was born Alice Elvira Freeman in Colesville, New York and brought up in Windsor, New York. Her parents both came from well-to-do families with interests in lumber, dairy farming and land. Alice was born a farmer's daughter but her father knew there was no future for him in farming, so he left the family to take care of the farm while he gained further education and became a doctor. He enrolled in medical school in 1861 and completed the M.D. in 1864.

At Windsor, she met Thomas Barclay, a student at Yale who, to pay off his college expenses, was teaching at the time. He encouraged her intellectual curiosity and served as her mentor. They became close and were engaged by 1869. By 1871 however, she broke off the engagement to attend college.

Alice showed determination at a young age by teaching herself to read by age four when she entered school. Her first job out of high school was at a private secondary school in Wisconsin, Lake Geneva Seminary. Alice desperately wanted to also continue her education, but her family could not allow this unless she promised to assist them in supporting the family, while she was away at college. So while she attended college she took teaching jobs to help her family. In 1872 she took an entrance examination at the University of Michigan. She showed deficiency in some areas but because of the strong impression she made on James B. Angell, he admitted her “under condition.” At the University of Michigan because of her charisma and hardworking attitude, Alice was invited to many social and academic events. She was one of four speakers at her commencement in 1876, despite the low numbers of women enrolled there.

After she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1876, she taught at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (1876–77) and was head of the high school at Saginaw, Mich. (1877–79). Her father declared bankruptcy in 1877 after losing family funds in a mining investment. Alice moved the family to Saginaw to a rented house that was paid for with her principal’s salary. In 1892 she became non-resident dean of the women's department at the University of Chicago, and a spokeswoman for women's place in higher education.

Henry Fowle Durant, the founder of Wellesley College, offered Palmer instructorships in mathematics and then Greek at Wellesley College in 1877 and 1878 but she refused them. In 1879 however, she accepted the position as head of the history department. She was a favorite of Wellesley students. Later in 1879 her younger sister Estelle became ill and died. Alice did not let this loss slow her down however, because in 1881 Palmer founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. Also, in Oct. of 1881 she was named vice president and acting president of Wellesley.

When Durant died, Palmer, at 26 years old, was elected president of the college. When she took the presidency, there was still a strained debate over the education of women. She was the first woman to be the head of a nationally known college. Palmer is also well known for helping the school become more well-rounded and a liberal arts college. Palmer attempted to take steps forward with the touchy subject of academics at Wellesley, pushing students and faculty toward higher levels of achievement. Along with gaining this position in 1882, Palmer was awarded the honorary Ph.D by the University of Michigan.

During her time at Wellesley she met her future husband, George Herbert Palmer, who taught at Harvard. They were married in 1887. She resigned from her position at Wellesley College, began to give public speeches on women's higher public education, and was a founder of the American Association of University Women. While summering at her husband's home in Boxford, MA, she explored the local area, took up photography, and sewed. She composed many beautiful poems, some of which are found in Palmer's "Life of Alice Freeman Palmer" and "A Marriage Cycle."

During the early 1890s, the president of the new University of Chicago asked both Alice and her husband to join the faculty. Her husband refused to leave Cambridge, but Palmer felt strongly about the opportunity. She stayed in Chicago for three years and there helped shape the women’s program and worked toward the same goals that she reached during her time at Wellesley. She resigned because of struggles to maintain her personal commitments. Once back in Boston she continued her leadership.

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